MILWAUKEE – Al Liu wanted an international career, and he got it — along with tasty cups of joe from the Gayo Highlands of northern Sumatra and the deep backcountry of southern Peru to the wrinkled landscape of Minas Gerais in Brazil.
He's worked with farmers in Myanmar, traveled one-lane mountain roads marked with crosses where trucks plunged off the edge, and dined on such delicacies as boiled yucca and gristly meat served on a metal plate.
He knows Spanish, Portuguese and German (his "wanderlust" begins with a "v" sound), speaks precisely, and punctuates his remarks with his hands. When drinking coffee, he can tell a blackberry note from a hint of strawberry.
His work-related country count exceeds a dozen, and it's not your typical list: Indonesia (10 times); Ethiopia, India and Bolivia (twice each); Tanzania; and more times than he can count to Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, Colombia, Brazil and Peru.
Formerly a wide-ranging coffee buyer for a Seattle-based importer, Liu now is vice president of coffee for Milwaukee's Colectivo and is helping guide the growing firm to an even more global position.
It's all good, but it's not exactly what the 43-year-old who grew up in the Milwaukee area pictured himself doing with his life.
"When I was in college I just completely dismissed business," Liu said. "I just never, ever thought I'd be in the private sector."
In fact, until he first started working the counter at what then was Alterra, he wasn't much of a coffee drinker at all.
"Not really," Liu said. "Definitely did not drink coffee black. And usually it was after dinner at a restaurant with milk and sugar."
Nor did he plan on hanging around Milwaukee. The son of a Marquette University math professor and a psychological supervisor at Milwaukee Public Schools, Liu studied international politics at Georgetown University and urban and environmental policy at Tufts. He envisioned a career in the nonprofit sector, and when he returned home for the holidays in late 2000 and took a job at Alterra, it was supposed to be strictly short-term.
But after a few weeks, specialty coffee and its growth started to seem interesting. Liu drafted some suggestions, pitched them to Alterra's owners and found himself with a new job as "projects and communications coordinator." He also did some travel abroad to meet with coffee producers. Wanting more of that, he went to work for Atlas Coffee Importers in Seattle.
That's where Liu's globe-trotting accelerated. Two years in Bolivia with the Peace Corps in the '90s had honed his "Sesame Street Spanish," and he was picking up Portuguese, too. He also kept his Peace Corps sensibility for the developing world.
Peter Giuliano, senior director at the Specialty Coffee Association of America, said Liu is unusually fluent in Spanish as a so-called green coffee buyer who must travel extensively in Latin America.
"He's also the real deal," Giuliano said. "I know him to be extremely passionate about ethics and integrity in coffee, and equity."
"Coffee doesn't grow in a vacuum," Liu said. That aspect has proved to be surprisingly compatible with his academic background.
"It's so intertwined with politics, history, economics culture, language — all these things that I had studied," he said.